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Vince Grippi: Nearly a decade after leaving Washington State, Klay Thompson proud as ever to be a Cougar

PULLMAN – Years pass quickly. Slowly too.

For Klay Thompson, whose No. 1 jersey will now fly in the Beasley Coliseum rafters for perpetuity, it seems like only yesterday he was wandering the Pullman streets, enjoying the nightlife, helping to fill Beasley Coliseum and banging the drum for Washington State.

Actually, it was yesterday. And the day before.

But it’s also been almost a decade since he was doing such things as a WSU basketball player. As one of the best Washington State players.

Now? A multiple NBA champion. A multiple All-Star. A multiple gold medal winner. But still a Cougar.

Maybe the most vocal Cougar in history. If you had met him in 2008, when he first arrived on campus, the WSU cheerleader role is not one you would have expected. All the other labels, sure, they were possible. But an outgoing salesperson? No way.

Though Tony Bennett, the WSU coach who enticed Thompson to the Palouse and authored one of many video clips shown during the game (along with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the Warriors’ Steve Kerr and assorted former WSU teammates), saw a fit – and still sees one.

“Klay was simple in a good way,” Bennett said, looking back across those years that have passed so quickly. “I think he just wanted to play basketball. In some ways, it was a good fit. The way he plays, the way he looks at life is simple and true.”

The same can be said about Thompson’s love of all things associated with Wazzu. It was a theme he kept coming back to Saturday before, during and after Washington State’s 89-76 victory over Oregon State. It was a game that served as a fitting backdrop to what was “Klay’s Day,” including the 34-point explosion from Isaac Bonton, a career high that included a half-court halftime buzzer beater.

And Thompson loved every minute of it, jumping up and down, exhorting the crowd with his arms, high-fiving WSU players. Acting like a proud big brother to the newest Cougars on the floor. It was appropriate in so many ways.

“To me, being a Coug means being a family,” Thompson said following his halftime address as his jersey was raised to the rafters – and he kissed Friel Court. “I meant that when I said I go worldwide and I hear, ‘Go Cougs,’ it’s an immediate connection.

“The community here, the college experience, it’s rare to get. To me being a Coug is family, it’s loyalty, it’s friendship and it’s just having your brothers’ or sisters’ back.”

The near-sellout, at 10,380 the largest Beasley crowd since Thompson actually wore his Cougar jersey, were there in large part to witness the moment.

The previous time Thompson was in Beasley for a Pac-12 game was March 5, 2011, a game Thompson missed, but also a day that gave a glimpse of who he just might become.

And a game he referenced kicking off his halftime speech.

“Man, last time I was on the mic at Beasley, I had the tears flowing,” he said. “I don’t know if this will be the same again, but I’m going to try not to cry because this is pretty special.”

Made even more so by the presence of his parents, his brother Mychel, eight former WSU teammates as well as a current Warriors one, Steph Curry.

On the day in 2011, he stood alone. No one else could shoulder the burden. It was all on him. It may even have been a turning point in his career, tears and all.

More so even than his WSU accomplishments, such as his 1,756 points – third on the Cougars’ list for men – or his 242 3-pointers – a record when he left – or his 17.9 scoring average – third, it was also the moment that solidified in some of his teammates mind what his future could hold.

It was his Pullman low point – he had been cited for marijuana possession and suspended for a crucial game with UCLA – but he turned it into a high point in many ways.

He took hold of a microphone before the game and apologized to the more than 9,000 in attendance.

“First of all, he felt awful,” said his former roommate Abe Lodwick, who experienced the apology firsthand. “That was a genuine response, which I think speaks volumes about him.

“He did feel like he owed something to the fans of Washington State, the people that had supported us, and definitely supported him.”

Now there may not be anyone who supports Washington State more.

First-year head coach Kyle Smith mentioned postgame how much Thompson’s vocal love of Pullman and Washington State will help in recruiting.

Mainly due to how much Thompson changed in three years on the Palouse.

As Bennett puts it, “I don’t know if there has ever been any better diamond in the rough than Klay Thompson.”

Thompson is no longer as rough as he was when he ventured north from California to the only Pac-10 school to recruit him more than a decade ago. But he’s still a diamond.

With a golden-tinged, if quite possibly faulty, memory.

Asked Saturday in a Beasley hall if he missed racing back to their duplex from road trips with Lodwick, Charlie Enquist and Brock Motum, all to win the honor of using the “gamer’s chair” for the epic video-game battles, Thompson laughed.

“The gamers’ chair? Yeah, I always won that.”

That’s not how Enquist remembers it. Of course. And he has proof.

“I had the only key to the duplex,” he said, laughing as well. “Klay and Brock got there first, but I won.”

Saturday, it was Klay’s turn to win. In every way. And, with more than 10,000 people showing him love, Thompson returned it. With interest.